When Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson got together to form Lightning Bolt, the music they began recording was like nothing else around them. It still is. For more than 20 years, the two Providence, Rhode Island, natives have produced what I described in a recent review as a bone-shatteringly intense composite of Boredoms-influenced noise, thrash metal and stoner rock that’s all but impossible to properly articulate in prose or even capture on record.
Indeed, the pair have put much currency into the primacy of the live experience. Lightning Bolt shows are not so much about simply absorbing music but actually experiencing it viscerally and physically. For most of their career, Gibson and Chippendale have performed gigs stationed on the ground, slap-bang in the middle of the crowd. Audience members form part of an almost orgiastic mass of heaving bodies encircling both players; a kind of ritualistic sonic circle jerk. The music seems to beget violence as performance art. Witnessed on video, a Lightning Bolt performance is beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.
Given such ostensibly lofty conceptual ideals, the band’s artsy origin makes sense. The duo met at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design before playing their first show in December 1994. The next couple of years saw some line-up changes as the twosome were temporarily augmented by a Japanese singer and a guitarist, before ultimately settling on a two-man combo of Chippendale on drums and Gibson on bass. Chippendale also handles vocal duties via a telephone receiver microphone strapped into a helmet, which he then runs through an assortment of effects pedals to produce incomprehensible warbling and wailing.
The pair were recording constantly almost immediately but it wasn’t until 1997 that the band started touring and two years later that their first, self-titled record arrived. Since then a further five full-length releases have followed, the most recent of which – 2012’s ‘Oblivion Hunter’ – was actually a composite of old, cleaned up material. It’s a leisurely but unerringly consistent pace, one that I’ll later find out dovetails well with a whole host of extracurricular interests ranging from making video games to producing illustrations and comics, not to mention a level-headed approach to the vagaries of making a career out of a rock band. On a personal level, it’s also a relief to know that Gibson and Chippendale aren’t perpetually immersed in the impossible intensity and freneticism of Lightning Bolt’s music, or else I’d worry for their sanity.
In arranging this interview, the two Brians have asked to speak to me on the phone consecutively on the same evening but separately; they’re apparently reluctant to get involved in a joint interview remotely. Though the arrangement is mildly irritating, it’s also completely understandable; if I shared my first name with my only other band mate, I’d probably soon get sick and tired of conference calls too. Besides, I should count myself lucky to get them both on the line at all, given that Gibson in particular has never been the biggest fan of press duties.
“I’m an artist. I was hoping to make art when I grew up, not… blab,” he says soon after we begin chatting. It sounds high-handed but I soon find out this is more a reflection of a considered, slightly reserved nature on Gibson’s part. The 39 year-old is just happiest playing music rather than talking about it. “I’m just not as skilful at that and it’s not something I feel that I have to do well,” he concedes. “I’ve definitely always had this opinion – like I was kind of stubborn about this – that if you do good stuff, you shouldn’t have to explain it to people. But then, like, I’m realising that it actually is important; you kind of have to talk about what you’re doing.”
In any case, Gibson has vested interests in loosening up a bit today. As well as fulfilling Lightning Bolt duties, he works as a lead artist for Harmonix – the people behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band – and has channelled that experience into producing ‘Thumper,’ another music game that Gibson likes to describe as “rhythm violence.” Other people have called it a surreally disturbing crossover between ‘Audiosurf’ and ‘F-Zero’ while videos online just make it look like a nightmarish acid trip. Either way, Gibson wants to get the word out, which I suspect is one of the reasons we’re speaking.
For Chippendale’s part, when I call him he’s also preoccupied with other artistic endeavours. It turns out he’s finishing up a comic book before Lightning Bolt head off on tour in a few weeks. “It kind of zips around this fancy town and it goes from being, I don’t know, science fiction weirdness into straight-up satire of current events,” the 41 year-old says animatedly of what will be his fourth book. Chippendale has the higher voice of the two and something of a gregarious, happy-go-lucky persona in comparison to the more muted Gibson. It’s easy to figure out why the pair click. “Right now I’ve got this weird ISIS dude meeting some lady from the Tea Party movement and they’re exchanging numbers because they’re really into each other,” he continues. “They’ve got similar talking points, you know, like, God is great; religion mixing into law, all that stuff. It’s different levels of extremism.” I say it sounds like a sort of warped dating website checklist. Chippendale chuckles: “Well, the title of the episode is ‘Match Made in Heaven,’ so…”
Against a backdrop of many other creative indulgences, perhaps it’s no great surprise that we’ve been waiting six long years now for new Lightning Bolt material, ever since 2009’s ‘Earthly Delights.’ The twosome began recording ‘Fantasy Empire’, their new record out now on Thrill Jockey, in earnest around three years ago, finishing up in October last year. Throughout that time the album was recorded, scrapped and re-recorded at least a couple of times. Long-time sound engineer Dave Auchenbach was jettisoned throughout the process as the band ultimately adopted an entirely new recording approach, working at a recording studio in nearby Pawtucket – Machines with Magnets – instead of their usual practice space.
It sounds potentially like the making of a disastrously disjointed salvage-job of an album. So the real surprise is actually how well ‘Fantasy Empire’ hangs together, melding Lightning Bolt’s punishingly aggressive sound with a new sense of fidelity. In my own review of the record last month, I scored the record 9/10 and wrote: “Chippendale’s drums now punch the chest with enough force to cause an aneurysm and Gibson’s squealing, dive-bombing riffs on album highlight ‘Runaway Train’ could melt any railway track. Approach with giddy trepidation.” Other critics have been equally effusive in their praise.
Having listened to the LP plenty since then, I’m even more inclined to stand by my words. It’s breathtakingly intense. The basic formula remains the same: Chippendale’s schizophrenic drumming the centrepiece of each song, with Gibson’s contortions on his modified bass providing the sludgy melody. Vocals, as ever, are something of an afterthought, distorted beyond all recognition and ran through a Line-6 delay pedal for yet another layer of obfuscation. This time though, there’s depth and weight to each track that was never there before. There are layers of overdubs but there’s also a greater sense of space. There’s sheen and fidelity without compromise. Oh, and there’s volume. Plenty of it.
In short, the record is a triumph, so I’m curious why the band didn’t produce their output via the studio much sooner. “It actually was a conscious thing,” Chippendale admits. “We recorded our first album, ‘Bright Sky’, in a small studio here in Providence that isn’t around anymore. Then we recorded ‘Wonderful Rainbow’ in a few different studios outside of LA but I just personally didn’t like it. You’d play for a little while then you’d just sit around all day while people worked on stuff. I’d just be kind of bored. Then on top of that, I never really thought it sounded that good. People would say, ‘What’s important is what comes out the other end’ but for me what was important was the sound there and then so we could play really well! But that wasn’t there.”
So for the next few records, the band had Auchenbach haul his equipment to their Rhode Island practice space instead. The engineer would record the pair playing through some dry wall layers with minimal separation, hoping to capture the buzz of a live Lightning Bolt performance. The results are certainly direct, with 2005’s ‘Hypermagic Mountain’ and ‘Earthly Delights’ from 2009 both sounding like they’d been taken straight from the soundboards at particularly intense shows on the road. On the flip side, they also come across slightly thin; Chippendale’s snare drums sounding like they belong in a marching band. Ironically, the records also function as less of an approximation of the live Lightning Bolt sound than the new LP.
“It worked for a few records,” Chippendale argues. “It was a really raw way of recording and you’d think that would be great for a super immediate-sounding thing, right?” Perhaps. But after trying the same approach for the new album, Gibson and Chippendale realised it was time for change. The two dispensed with Auchenbach’s services and headed into a studio with a Pro Tools setup.
Where does this leave the relationship with their old sound engineer, I wonder?
“It’s not the most comfortable situation. Dave is an amazing guy and we wish it worked [again],” Chippendale responds. “He understands that you just have to try new stuff. Previously it had been the same recording process, the same equipment and with Dave again, so I think [the new album] was just one record too far to go down that road. It was really hard to figure that out though. We’ve worked with Dave for so long and it was just hard to stop and abandon ship.”
There have been other big changes over the past few years too. Thanks to the duo’s surging popularity, their favoured live approach of playing on the floor of venues amidst the crowd has become an increasingly rare phenomenon. Previously this was a pivotal part of their appeal to the hardcore element of their fan base; ironically yet perhaps inevitably, Lightning Bolt’s nascent notoriety has made the band inaccessible to the very people who made them notorious in the first place.
Now that the band find themselves playing the stages of multi-thousand-capacity venues, a couple of questions spring to mind. One: how does this feel as a performer, having before been at the very centre of the maelstrom but now finding oneself towering above the crowd; has there been a dissipation of energy? Two: what does this loss of accessibility and proximity mean for those hardcore fans; is it still worth buying tickets for a Lightning Bolt show?
On the first of these, Gibson is refreshingly candid. “It’s a big change. It seems like some people don’t mind but it’s hard to create, like, the magic,” he says. “When we’re on the floor, the sound from my speakers literally bounces off the people in the front row and comes back to me. It’s like the sound is mixed with the audience, people are bumping into me, it’s all very direct and sometimes it’s even frustrating to play, like with all that going on. At the same time though, I prefer it to there being a separation between us and the audience; it doesn’t make as much sense to me. [On stage] I still feel like we can do this enjoyable spectacle for people but it becomes just that – a spectacle – instead of, like, a ritual.” He lets out a laugh. “I’m trying to learn to get something out of it.”
Chippendale is more sanguine, even if he does recognise the magnitude of the change. “I was talking to Greg [Saunier] from Deerhoof a while ago, and he was saying like, ‘Man, if you guys ever play on stage it’s going to be like when KISS took off their make-up!’” He’s now laughing as well. “I think there’s been some surprise when we’ve played on stage though and people have been able to see us and hear us, instead of it just being total craziness,” he adds. “People have been like, ‘Whoah these guys can actually play!’ Plus, I like people being able to see me play drums. I’m doing a lot work up there so it’s nice to think more than like 12 people can see me now!”
There’s a bit of an ideological divergence here within the band. Gibson tells me that he’s ill at ease with the notion of the modern rock star, peacocking in front of thousands of people and lapping up their adoration (“It seems like a flawed take on what music is all about,” he tells me). He also speaks of performance anxiety at big festivals and trying to connect with his band mate on stage for fear of feeling alone. Meanwhile, Chippendale sounds like he’s acclimatised to the new dynamic of Lightning Bolt performances like a duck to water (“Even if you put me 40 feet in the air I would still just be having fun,” he says).
If live performances are just one of the ways the pair’s different personalities manifest themselves – Gibson the quieter of the two and Chippendale the clear extrovert – it’s hard not to wonder how Lightning Bolt have managed to make it into their third decade as an on-going concern. After all, the two Brians aren’t just band mates; they’re friends too. The idea of maintaining a working relationship for 20-odd years is alien enough, let alone one predicated on a potentially combustible friendship between apparent opposites.
Ironically, Chippendale says it was the early years that were the rockiest. “I feel like when we began, in the first 15 years our temperaments should have killed us,” he jokes. “I would get wound up about stuff though and be stubborn, and we would get into fights. The fights between us would be me exploding and him just shutting down. I would at least feel good because I’d exploded but he’d be feeling shit because I’d basically passed it on to him. For years I feel like that was our dynamic and yeah, it would get kind of bad sometimes. I feel like I’m a little wiser about that now though; understanding how things affect Brian and stuff. Brian also understands me. We just get each other better now.”
Besides, Gibson suggests it’s a mistake to see the pair’s differences as hindrances to the band’s success. In fact, he says, the opposite is true. “Over the years we’ve both learned and acknowledged that Lightning Bolt is what it is because of the differences between us as much as it is because we have a similar vision,” he says. “Some bands come and go I think because they agree too much. They get together and know exactly what they want to do, they do it, they release it then after that they don’t know what else to do. They knew what their goals were and they achieved them. Whereas with us, we never agreed those goals; it’s a constant struggle and evolution that may go on forever.” He pauses a moment to reflect. “It’s kind of cool actually, to be involved in that kind of collaboration.”
Nowadays the band have a good sense of how to keep things ticking over. Tours tend to be short, around four weeks or less. Dinners and downtime aren’t necessarily spent together. There are a few other broader factors underpinning the band’s longevity too. Both members still live and work in Providence, Rhode Island, which means practice sessions are regular and any bust-ups can be handled face-to-face. Neither of the two have any kids yet, although partners are on the scene.
Finally and probably most importantly, Gibson and Chippendale have each got artistic lives beyond the band. Aside from his videogame work, Gibson plays with doom metal outfit Megasus, while Chippendale supplements his illustration and comic books with a number of solo projects. He also designs Lightning Bolt’s record sleeves. “When you’re in a band, you’ve kind of got to be on the same page in that way,” Chippendale says. “You can’t have a band where it’s like 200% of one person’s life but like 50% of another’s because then you’re in trouble. For me there have been times when I’ve wanted more out of it but then I started doing solo stuff [side project Black Pus]. You know, if Brian’s not going to come over tonight or this month, to practise, well I’ll just do my own thing. Then when he’s ready to go, I’m ready to go.”
Go they shall. In mid-April, Lightning Bolt are heading out on an American tour, before coming across the water later in the year. There are some nerves about how the new songs will work live. Some, like ‘Horsepower’ and ‘Snow White’ have been gestating for years but others, such as ‘Mythmaster’ and its complex time signatures, and the experimental dirge of ‘King of my World,’ represent more of a challenge. They were more or less put together purely for the album. Gibson and Chippendale are both confident of making them work though and soon enough fans will know either way.
More concerning – at least to me anyway – is how on earth Lightning Bolt maintain this level of intensity indefinitely. It’s hard to imagine Chippendale punching through his drums into his sixties and beyond, I say. Gibson starts laughing. “If Brian couldn’t physically play drums, he’d just come up with some other way of expressing himself musically that he could keep doing and was just as crazy,” he eventually replies. “John Coltrane’s drummer – I can’t remember his name [Elvin Jones] – that guy was playing crazy drums until the end.”
Chippendale is just as bullish about what lies ahead for the band. “Twenty years ago I didn’t project ahead more than a week and I kind of still don’t,” he says when I ask him the same thing. “Obviously the gap between 20 and 40 is different to 40 and 60, like physically. But I try to practise every day and I definitely feel like a lot of the time I play, I get to these places where I still feel like a really wild person. It’s always been there and it hasn’t gone away; I’m continually able to tap into it. So I think I’ll be pretty ferocious for a while longer. No doubt something will change at some point – I guess it has to – but not this year. Not this decade.”